Berlusconi charges dropped, others added


FLORENCE, Italy -- A pair of Milan courts delivered mixed news to media kingpin Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday, dropping a set of tax-related charges against his media empire while adding a new set -- all while the three-time prime minister was enjoying the headlines surrounding his decision to re-enter the political arena.

In the latest developments, one Milan district court threw out charges that Berlusconi made false statements in 2000 over the value of certain properties related to broadcast giant Mediaset, which Berlusconi controls. It alleges that a Mediaset subsidiary sold the rights to certain films and television content to the parent company at an inflated price in order to bolster Mediaset's expenses and reduce the company's tax bill.

The court said that the charges were too old and that the statute of limitations on them would expire before the trial could be concluded.

But a prosecutor in another Milan court followed that decision with a new set of similar if less severe charges -- alleging tax fraud in 2003 and 2004. Given the more recent dates on the new set of charges, that case can be heard as late as 2012.

Judges will decide whether the new charges are worth considering as soon as Wednesday.

Berlusconi, who has denied all tax-related charges against him, has a long history of legal troubles. But he has never been convicted, often because the statute of limitations runs out before the trial can be completed.

The news out of Milan comes in the wake of Berlusconi's decision to throw his hat back in the political ring with Monday's official launch of a new political opposition party.

The party -- officially called the Partito del Popolo Italiano (The Party of the Italian People) -- received a lukewarm reception from Berlusconi's former allies, but Berlusconi vowed it will unseat Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi in elections scheduled for next year.

Berlusconi's latest foray into politics comes with at least four open criminal cases pending against him in Milan and Rome, not counting the latest tax-fraud allegations.